When I first stepped on an Aikido mat, O-sensei had only been gone for about 20 years. My teachers still spoke of him often and instilled a very strong sense that O-sensei was the absolute pinnacle, and that none of us (including them) could ever hope to reach his level. His first-generation students, having all become teachers themselves, were all still alive and actively helping to spread the art. Yet, as I began to encounter some of them, the message was the same; they all protected him very carefully and spoke of him always in a way that preserved that sense awe-inspiring devotion. Since the ceiling had been clearly set for us from day one, the practice was expected to be only that of preservation, very careful preservation, without much room for experimentation or innovation.
Here is the problem: Since it was understood that no one else would ever be like O-sensei, and he was now gone, how could the art ever hope to evolve or improve? Since the mandate of preservation is always accompanied by some level of deterioration, each generation was left to grapple with the notion that they were simply not as proficient or significant as the last.
Helio Gracie is acknowledged as the founder of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, yet in stark contrast to the culture I just described, there are probably very few modern jiu-jitsu practitioners who believe Helio’s game would stand up to the scrutiny of today’s competitors. Competition and daily pressure testing have led to continual refinement and innovation, and as a result the modern art has evolved significantly. You know what, I’ll bet Helio would be very proud of that legacy. You know what else, I’ll bet O-sensei would have been proud of such a thing as well. What teacher does not wish to see their art refined and improved by those who follow?
I must strongly reject the premise. I think the best way to honor O-sensei is to move the art forward in a way that is sincere, relevant, innovative, and includes the scrutiny that I believe he himself would have demanded. Of what use am I to my students if my goal is only to be some diminished version of my teachers? No, I should be working as hard as possible to go beyond the understanding of my teachers, not for the purpose of highlighting my own accomplishments, but as means of demonstrating to my students a path to someday surpass me. It is my wish for all of them, and I hope it will be the way of things.